Saknussemm in Guandong

I hate to big note myself (unless I’m ill-advisedly tilting at the windmill of a luscious younger woman who I think may not see through the act quickly enough)-but, as a certified paranoiac, I do occasionally have moments where I draw some grand albeit dark and discomfiting conclusions about the impact of my psychic state, perhaps just even my physical presence, on the larger scene.

For example, I can’t help but feel some twinge of that famous sinking feeling when I think of the Chinese province of Guandong.

Things can start off innocently enough-say with a tea-buying spree in Shanghai or some casual misbehavior in Hong Kong (although I do have my friend, the San Francisco writer Leland Cheuk, to thank for bailing me out of an embarrassingly large bill once at a girlie bar in Wan Chai)-but by the time I get to Guandong, things start to openly wobble.

Each visit, some catastrophe has taken place. I lie. Multiple crises have ensued, erupted-and just plain exploded. I’m left with the nagging question-am I a DISASTER MAGNET?

Guandong is China’s most populous region and the driving wheel of their economic empire. Guangzhou (Canton) is the principal city. To say it’s possibly the world’s densest manufacturing center today is no overstatement and doesn’t really begin to capture the emotional-psychological aspect. We’re talking the intensity of a termite mound during a thunderstorm.

Guandong produces a signficant percentage of China’s entire GDP, and there’s an excellent chance that right around you now are a whole lot of things made there-from clothing to electrical goods, to things inside other things-to stuff you don’t want to know about. Anything you can think of in fact, may very well be made in Guandong.

Hong Kong and Macau were historically parts of Guandong, and Cantonese remains the main language spoken there, despite the recent flood of immigration from other parts of the country because of the employment opportunities. The bulk of the men and women who built the railroads of America and Canada originated from Guandong, and that same work ethic is very much alive today.

Which isn’t to say that all is well there. Not by a long shot. Most of the wealth produced is consolidated around the Pearl River Delta. Actual wages generally are often pitiful. Sweatshops, battery farms and bizarre factory scenes from out of the 19th century sit right alongside complexes that conjure the 22nd. Unidentified clouds of smoke hang over vast sections. I worked one summer on Neville Island in Pittsburgh, back when steel and coke were manufactured there, and it doesn’t even begin to compare.

Toledo painted by Saknussemm

I first went to Guandong because of this painting (ironically titled Toledo).

A gallery in Hong Kong had taken me on and had sold it to an advertising executive visiting from Guangzhou. The gallery owner’s tip was to pay a visit there. There was talk of the Chinese government turning an immense decommissioned military base into a magical arts colony, where artists from all over China and the world would be welcome to live for free, providing they fixed up their own studio quarters. I was on a plane to Guangzhou quick smart-and that’s when the pattern began to form.

I could be sitting peacefully at a Western style breakfast…and a fiberglass factory has burst into an inferno of flames flash-frying 400 workers in an instant. Phosphates are found to be leeching into a major waterway. 300 school children suddenly lose all their hair. The principal railway line suddenly gets closed for unstated reasons and men in strange uniforms appear. The next morning an “incident” has occurred at a sulfuric acid plant. (Incidents don’t occur with sulfuric acid-more like total havoc and mayhem.) And then there are the agricultural industry outbreaks.

Meat Pig Head

We all know that chickens go supernova when the computers malfunction and too many hormones are administered. We all freaked out about Bird Flu. But what about suckling pigs with two heads? What about several baby pigs with two heads?

Yes, we’re willing to overlook a few oddball mutations. What would the traditions of the NBA, the freak show, and a good portion of next year’s admitted class to M.I.T. be without some wiggle room on this point? But it’s not a good look to be eating some Western style bacon in Guandong-overhearing that several hundred factory workers have been cooked like bacon, and only a few miles away, pigs are being born with two heads.

Now, I concede, it’s very possible-it may even be likely-that my coincidental presence has had nothing to do with these calamities. No one wishes that more than me. But I’ll tell you the thing that worries me the most. When this weird shit has been going down-and I count a total of thirteen “incidents” over the course of my visits that would’ve made front page/top of the TV bulletin news where I live-only one made it onto the radar of the world media that I’m aware of. One. (In a particularly worrisome instance, 4,000 people were exposed to toxic chemicals and I’m certain nary a whisper reached CNN or any outside news source.)

China has become much more media transparent than it was only a short while ago. The recent spree of attacks by lunatics on school children is a case in point. That news might well not have reached us once. The Olympics in Beijing helped. The influx of western businesses has helped. But in my view, we have the Chinese students and folks under thirty to thank for opening some windows that were previously sealed-and not always for reasons of some kind of political dissent. In fact, many Chinese young people are far more conservative than you might think.

The reason these younger people are conduits for news is that they’re often dislocated across great distances from their homes to study in the major cities, and like many of the population, they’re forced to occasionally seek employment at great distance from home. A lot of news that otherwise might not get out is carried in very personal ways by this mobile section of the populace.

It helps that these younger people are computer fluent, usually have cell phones, and have some degree of multilingual skills. But theirs isn’t for the most part any active attempt to subvert the official government spin on anything. The many students I’ve met are working hard just to cope with the challenges they face, and they have a great deal of pride in their cultures. Take my young friend Su, for instance.

She comes from an isolated rural village in the far north and lives in a shoebox, attending university in Shanghai. She’s the first person of her generation to go away to university, and in recognition of her achievement, her village named their most prized asset after her-a large earthmoving machine. When the government presented it to them, they had her name stenciled on the side. It sounds like a humble honor, but as everyone knows, 20 year olds don’t tear up all that easy-and she does when she shows the photograph-meekly but with reverence.

Her goal is to get educated and to help her family. She has no political radicalism. But she gets concerned when she hears from her brother, who works in Guandong, that several of his fellow employees have suddenly fallen gravely ill or that a few hundred at a plant nearby have been incinerated.

What did the plant manufacture? That’s another very big problem. It’s not just that industrial accidents occur far too frequently (whether I have anything to do with it or not), there’s a much bigger issue.

I have a friend who’s been a senior chemical engineer for DuPont (The Miracles of Science™). Their history, like Monsanto’s and others, is pretty checkered too. I don’t pretend to understand all that he does, but here’s how he puts it. “It’s very wrong to think the problem with developing giants like China and India is a matter of quality control and safety standards. That makes it sound like there are lapses in protocol that create accidents. It’s a lot truer to say that there are practices and processes at work that aren’t safe period. You don’t need a Ph.D. and twenty years of industry experience to know certain things aren’t only dubious, but highly dangerous. You can see them from the road. There are manufacturing facilities involved in multiple kinds of production that would simply not be allowed in the U.S., Japan and in all of Western Europe.”

Chinese Money

It doesn’t take a genius to understand why this is allowed to continue. It’s not a question of there being no photographic evidence, no chemical analyses, a tell-no-one conspiracy on the part of the government and its leverage over their media. We’re all engaged in the “conspiracy” because it’s right out in the open. We’re all stepping and fetching to the beat of China’s economic drum, with India’s juggernaut not far behind.

And yet, it’s a great mistake, too, to assign national blame in this regard, when multinational corporations are involved. Large portions of America have been similarly blighted in the past because of money and expedience (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and on and on). Think of the Midlands of England. Industrial devastation is nothing new-but it takes on a new meaning with both the scale of production in Guandong and what’s being produced.

Can any region, anywhere in the world sustain super-dense manufacturing across such a huge spectrum of industries, even if the highest quality work practices are in place? What if they’re obviously not?

It’s easy to think the problem is somehow “over there.” It’s easy to ignore what you hear only vaguely about, if at all. And sadly, it’s all too easy for whole nations to turn their backs on commercial negligence and malfeasance for financial reasons.

But sooner or later, a catastrophe occurs that inevitably does make the news-and like news-can travel. Look at BP’s tragic fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thank You, Good LuckI confess that I knew only generally what the situation was like in China until I physically paid a visit. There are thousands of legitimate enterprises that are being well run there-coping with a multitude of complex logistical problems. But while we may worry at large about China’s carbon footprint, I had some serious tactical concerns for my own, when I stepped through a marshy area and later felt a distinctly warm sensation. By the time I made it back to my hotel, the soles of my new Shanghai shoes were partially dissolved. Those shoes were dramatically cheaper than anything I could buy in America or Australia. But I can’t help wondering if there’s another price tag involved.